"Speak to the children of Israel: 'Let them take for Me a gift-offering...'" (Exodus 25:2)
The central commandment of the biblical portion this week - and indeed for the last five portions of Exodus - is "they shall make for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell in their midst" (Ex. 25:8). The text describes - in minute detail - the manner and materials of construction for the sanctuary as well as the sacred objects within it. This entire enterprise was completely "funded" by voluntary donations (25:2) - the most successful fund-raising campaign in history; Moses had to ask the people to cease bringing gifts because the supply had exceeded the need (Ex. 36:5-7).
There is, however, a textual difficulty: God tells Moses to have the Israelites "take" for Me a gift-offering. Ought not the word have been to "give"? Italian commentator R. Ovadia Sforno (1470-1550) writes: "[Let Moses] tell the Israelites that I would like the gabbaim or trustees of the sanctuary to collect gifts from each individual" (ad loc). Rav Haim Ish Brisk added that the trustees would then take the donated materials and dispense them.
This was a necessary procedure to teach the Israelites that no one individual owned any specific piece of the sanctuary, which belonged in a certain sense to the entire nation, and in another sense to the Lord of the cosmos.
The importance of this teaching was sadly brought to my attention when two individuals almost came to blows in my former New York synagogue. A disagreement had erupted over the right of a person who came late to ask a visitor sitting in the seat with the person's name on it to vacate the seat. The lesson was intensified when a member of a synagogue in Efrat removed "his" bima (the Torah table which also served as the cantor's lectern) from the sanctuary because he felt that the individual in whose name he had dedicated it had been wronged by the shul's gabbaim. No accoutrement of a sanctuary belongs to any individual, no matter how large a donation he might have made; the donor gives his offering to the trustees who represent the sanctuary.
Allow me to suggest an alternative explanation for the command, "Let them take for Me a gift-offering."
One of the outstanding disciples of Rav Yisrael Salanter, 18th-century initiator of the Ethicist (Mussar) Movement, was Rav Yoisef-Yoizel. This great talmudic sage began a network of Nevardok yeshivot throughout Europe - there were 180 of them before World War II - dedicated to teaching the denigration of trends and popular opinion in favor of following only God's "wishes."
Rav Yoisef-Yoizel had a student who seemed impervious to the spiritual and even iconoclastic attitudes of the yeshiva, and who was asked to leave. He was accepted by another yeshiva in a neighboring town where, upon leaving, he became a particularly successful businessman. Rav Yoisef-Yoizel asked to meet with him - and emerged with a million-ruble donation to start a "Nevardok" yeshiva. The dean of the yeshiva who had accepted Rav Yoisef-Yoizel's "reject" excitedly made an appointment with his former student, expecting at least 2 million rubles; after all, he had accepted him when the student had been without a place to go. To his chagrin, he received a mere 36-ruble donation. In perplexed disappointment, he asked for an explanation.
"I will explain the matter to you," said the businessman. "Rav Yoisef-Yoizel came to my home in the midst of a snowstorm. He walked straight into the salon, paid no attention to the elegant furnishings, messed up my expensive carpet and immediately began to speak of the spiritual and ethical power a new Nevardok yeshiva would add to the Jewish world. In his presence, all of my material wealth seemed meaningless unless it could be used to enhance our Jewish mission. I felt he was giving me a gift, a great opportunity to use my money wisely.
"When you entered my home, on the other hand, your eyes widened as you looked at my art collection and thick carpets. You removed your boots and seemed to walk on eggshells so as not to damage my furnishings. You called me by the respected prefix Reb, not because of my learning but apparently because of my money.
"In your presence, beloved Rebbe, I came to value my money even more, and so I was loath to give away any more than 36 rubles..."
A number of years ago I visited a congregant in a hospice. He was a well-known philanthropist whose many material assets could not bring him good health. "Apparently," he said, in the full knowledge that he would soon be leaving this world, "the only money I really have is whatever I gave away to good causes." Many investors in the stock market or with Ponzi-like investment brokers are coming to the same realization. To give to a good cause is really to "take" on the highest level, because it enables our assets to affect the world beyond our lifetime.
The writer is the founder and chancellor of Ohr Torah Stone Colleges and Graduate Programs, and chief rabbi of Efrat.